Interviews and Trauma: a part or apart?

‘It’s become quite loud in here,’ Kimina Lyall says. True. I turn my head from the wooden booth where we sit remembering my entrance to this bar less than an hour ago. I was the only patron until Lyall arrived to make us two. But now there is a din of multiple conversations. It’s apt that these are surrounding us, these conversations. The word bubbles up frequently along the stream of our discussion and it’s something that Lyall emphasises about interviewing people who have experienced trauma (and interviewing generally). ‘There’s a danger of asking questions as opposed to having a conversation,’ she tells me. ‘You go in with your questions and you end up just asking what you think you need to know rather than letting the conversation evolve.’

Kamina Lyall emphasises authenticity, honesty and a conversation when interviewing people about traumatic events. Thanks to Marc Wathieu for use of this image Graphic Conversation under Creative Commons.
Kamina Lyall emphasises authenticity, honesty and a conversation when interviewing people about traumatic events. Thanks to Marc Wathieu for use of this image Graphic Conversation under Creative Commons.

Lyall has an unusually wide perspective on the coverage of traumatic events. She was a journalist with the Australian for 11 years as both a nationwide reporter and a foreign correspondent. In 2004 (when she was the Australian’s Southeast Asia Correspondent based in Thailand) she found herself on a beach as the Boxing Day tsunami approached. Despite her own trauma Lyall reported for the Australian in the hours, days and weeks after the event. She later wrote Out of the Blue: Facing the Tsunami, a book about her experience. She’s now a Director and Company Secretary with the Dart Centre Asia Pacific (a project of Columbia Journalism School, ‘dedicated to informed, effective and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy.’ [quote from]).

‘The number one thing that happens when people are traumatised is that they’ve lost control. That’s what trauma is,’ says Lyall. ‘If you go to the psychological literature the trauma first aid is to allow the person to make a choice. “Do you want a glass of water? Do you want a juice? Do you want a blanket or a cardigan?”’ A conversational approach to interviews (rather than questions and answers) is more aligned with this first aid. ‘Give the person that you’re interviewing as much control as possible and remind them that at any time they can take charge, take control and talk about something that’s important to them or not answer a question,’ says Lyall. ‘Just reinforce that it’s totally their choice, that at anytime your interviewee can end the interview.’

Lyall also empowered those in her book with, ‘a 100% guarantee that they will see everything I write that concerns them.’ She didn’t promise to make changes but did promise to have a conversation if those people had any problems. ‘I think you’ve got to have the right nose and have the right motive [in deciding whether to show your interviewees your work or not]. If you’re talking to a person who’s just lost their family in a disaster then I think the benefits outweigh the risks.’

I wonder how a writer can avoid further distressing (or ‘revictimising’) someone who’s already experienced trauma went interviewing them about the event. Are there some topics that are better avoided? ‘It’s so easy for us to make assumptions about what the other person feels and then censor ourselves on the basis of those assumptions,’ says Lyall. In her experience what writers worry about may be the last thing that worries an interviewee. Reflecting on the Boxing Day tsunami she says, ‘I know what my pain point of that experience is… No one would ever guess what it was.’

Lyall also warns against assumptions around journalism itself. ‘As journalists we tend to flagellate ourselves and think that we are bad people doing bad things – going in and probing in all the wounds and just extracting it for our own selfish ends.’ She recalled one assignment about a traumatic event many years ago. Her interviewees were reluctant and she gave them the opportunity to veto her article before it was published. They not only allowed her to publish it but also were so happy with her words that they thanked her, and went on to send her Christmas cards several years afterwards. ‘For some people in some situations being published – having their story being told in a powerful truth (that’s their truth) – is a healing act,’ she says. She was glad to learn that lesson early in her career. ‘It’s not all bad providing you start with those principles of the other person in control.’

So much of a journalist’s success in ethics relates to authenticity says Lyall. ‘Sometimes as journalists we want to add drama.’ We are storytellers but we need to be careful about the words we choose. Lyall cites classic examples in phrases like brutal rape (‘Like there’s such a thing as a non-brutal rape?’) likewise tragic death and appalling crime. ‘Just be authentic,’ says Lyall. Do this in storytelling as well as interviews. ‘Be honest [with your interviewees] about what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it… If you’re honest then you can have trust. And if you’re not, then people will read it straight away.’

After Lyall leaves I sit in our booth for a moment reflecting on her words. It’s not just the conversational din of those around me din that echoes Lyall’s advice, but also it’s the idea of now being a part of a shared experience. I came here as a lone writer daunted by the prospect of interviewing people who have experienced traumatic events. I leave with a keener awareness that a writer is just a part of something much bigger.

Non-fiction picks for EWF14

One of my favourite annual booklets has landed in my hands: the program for Melbourne's inspiring Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’ve already torn out the handy bookmarks and trawled its pages for the best non-fiction picks. Here are my tips for #EWF14…  

The National Writers’ Conference (Saturday 31 May and Sunday 1 June.)

There’s no better way for an emerging writer to transition to the winter months than this packed two-day conference. I am a card-carrying fan of the Emerging Writers' Festival - thanks mostly to this particular event. I’ve been attending for several years and always learn something new. This year I’m chuffed to be a part of the line-up. These are my must-sees for the conference:

The voices on the page (Saturday 31 May, 11am) Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Jennifer Down and Livia Albeck-Ripka will talk about dialogue and interviewing skills. Considering how important dialogue is to non-fiction we’re bound to learn some super useful things from this session.

The new non-fiction (Saturday 31 May, 3pm) Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Gillian Terzis and I will be talking about how digital and the long form renaissance has played into Australian non-fiction. I’m really looking forward to chatting with Rebecca and Gillian (and you) about my favourite subject. If you can’t make it to the National Writers’ Conference I hope you’ve booked a seat at Who can tell whose stories? which is on at the same time in the Southbank Theatre (but sold out already).

Get your hands on one of these - an Emerging Writers' Festival program.
Get your hands on one of these - an Emerging Writers' Festival program.

The lives of others (Saturday 31 May, 2pm) Benjamin Law, Michele Lee, Eli Glasman and Alana Schetzer will talk about the challenges of representing others in their writing. As I move forward in my career I find this topic particularly interesting. Non-fiction writers are highly dependent on the generosity and openness of their subjects. I wonder how these writers navigate this sensitive aspect of our work.

When Australians go abroad (Sunday June 1, 12pm) Hannah Kent, Ender Baskan, Jo Randerson and André Dao. Most non-fiction writers will find themselves compelled to write about events in other nations. Let’s gather any tips this experienced cohort has.

The real live writers’ group (Sunday June 1, 2pm) Jo Case, Rochelle Siemienowicz, Rebecca Starford and Estelle Tang will conduct their regular writers’ group in our presence. I'm already  a member of a writers’ group and it’s been central to my day-to-day writing. I wonder how this group is similar and/or different to my own (awesome) group?

Me-me-me and my memoir (Sunday June 1, 3pm) Liam Pieper, Luke Ryan, Lorelei Vashti and Benjamin Law are talking, well, memoir. As someone who puts my voice into at least half of my writing I feel it prudent to think critically about this approach. No doubt this session will give me pause for thought.

Who can tell whose stories? (Saturday 31 May, 3pm)

If you’re not going to the writers’ conference I hope you’ve booked a place in this session so that you can take some notes for me! John Safran, Alice Pung, Roslyn Oades, Isaac Drandic and Fiona Gruber will talk about the storyteller’s responsibility towards the people whose stories they tell. (BTW you can learn more about John Safran’s experience of writing Murder in Mississippi in this post).

The pitch (Wednesday May 28, 6pm)

Julia Carlomagno, Sam Cooney, Patrick Lenton, Vanessa Radnidge and Nina Gibb will talk about pitching. Even experienced pitchers will get insight from this ever-popular session.

Creative nonfiction writing night school (Thursday June 5, 6.30pm)

Rebecca Giggs will be teaching a workshop that will explore writing and research techniques. Excellent value at $30/$25 for a 1.5 hour workshop.

Filibust (Wednesday June 4, 1.30pm)

Nick Keys’ session considering political oratory and rhetoric promises to be enlightening, engaging and inspiring.

I look forward to seeing you all there!

John Safran on writing true crime

‘Freaking hell, just lay out the facts simply at the start,’ says John Safran, writer and celebrated documentary maker. He’s not talking to me so much as to himself. We’re discussing approaches to long form – what he’s learned while writing Murder in Mississippi. And we’re talking on the phone – a fact that will have more resonance for me after our interview than during it. ‘There are ways to simply hook people in. You don’t have to be desperate at the start,’ he says. You don’t have to ‘top load’ the story with everything the reader needs to know. Safran piqued my interest in his writing process at last year's Emerging Writers Festival. He presented days out from submitting his manuscript and flagged the significance of a switch from writing for broadcast to writing a book. Speaking today he says it wasn’t so much of a challenge to make the change (‘I don’t find long form any more difficult,’), as it was to ‘crack the riddle of long form’. It took him a while to work out how he wanted to present his style, his story and his characters.

With crime there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out, says John Safran, author of Murder in Mississippi.
With crime there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out, says John Safran, author of Murder in Mississippi.

There are many characters in Murder in Mississippi (which pivots on the case of white-supremacist Richard Barrett and his black killer Vincent McGee) but there are three characters that drive the story forward: Barrett, McGee and Safran. The inclusion of Safran’s own voice is part of his well-honed shtick (‘People want me to do dangerous, idiosyncratic and weird stuff,’ he says). But it isn’t a gag aimed only at pleasing his fans – writing the story from Safran’s point of view enables a logic to the complex unfolding of plot turns and rabbit holes that come out of his research. It frames the narrative and frees him from a chronological retelling – allowing him to reveal aspects to the reader as they were revealed to him. ‘I’m focused on keeping [the story] pure. I try not to be tricky or clever on other levels,’ he says.

This idea of purity also informs Safran’s use of dialogue. ‘You can’t force an audience to think a character is dangerous or funny or real just by asserting it. You have to demonstrate it,’ he says. Understanding dialogue was a part of cracking the long form riddle for Safran. ‘For some reason I thought, Oh you’re not allowed to put a lot of dialogue in ‘cause your readers will think you’ve slacked off and just transcribed dialogue. But then I realised that’s how you bring characters to life.’

‘One real breakthrough happened when I started blurting into the Dictaphone all the time,’ Safran says. ‘I realised that’s a better way to write things.’ On returning to his apartment in the early days of his US-based research he would just write up notes. ‘But as soon as you start writing you’re already editing things out,’ – a process he found counter productive. ‘[When I’m writing] I somehow feel this obligation that everything has to be watertight and absolutely make sense without any holes. That’s less interesting writing,’ he says. Whereas speaking into the Dictaphone ‘I can say something where I’m leaving stuff out and I’m not quite plugging every hole – but somehow it all makes sense when you transcribe it.’ He regrets not having found the technique sooner – citing aspects of his journey that weren’t included in the story. ‘I was so paranoid that I wasn’t going to make any contact with Vincent and that was going to ruin the book…in retrospect it would have been really cool to have these bits of me really panicking in the book. But I didn’t record them,’ he says. Later he tried to recreate the paranoia and failed. ‘People like my work when it resonates as real.’

Safran recently had a short true crime piece A Town Called Malice published in The Good Weekend Magazine. I asked him if writing true crime was something he might pursue – that he might add to his shtick. ‘I’m interested in crime (at least crime when it’s as extreme as murder) in so much as it brings out the true character in people,’ he says. It’s not the mystery of the crime that catches him but how wider issues (like racism) can be explored through true crime stories. If Safran had gone to Mississippi and told people he was writing about Mississippi and racism then, ‘everything [would be] a bit of a dead end conversation,’ he says. With crime however there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out. ‘The crime is the perfect spine and the perfect pressure point for me to find out these other things that I’m more interested in,’ Safran says.

Long form was a new challenge for Safran but he wasn’t daunted by it. He read books by other crime and long form writers (William Burrows, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson among them). He even read a book on verbs. But, he concludes, ‘The only way you can learn is by doing things and the next thing you write is slightly better.’

Safran says that the first draft of his manuscript included a long section about his time in Melbourne (before he went to the US). ‘I spent six months going mad in my flat. I was locked up and I’d be trying to find out all this stuff on the Internet about Richard Barrett,’ he says. Research is crucial. ‘For me at least the trick is to get tons of information,’ he says. But he’s not talking about Internet or book research (which he argues would be near impossible to flesh into a long form piece).

And this is the part of our interview that resonates with me days later when I’m struggling to find an angle for this piece. For the interview I am talking to Safran on the phone and as we talk, different ‘murbles’ (read the book) and ambient sounds travel from his location into my headphones. I wonder – is Safran walking? Sometimes it sounds like he’s on a street somewhere. Sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps he’s pacing his apartment…? But we’ll never know as this was a telephone interview I did from the comfort of my desk and I can only speculate. The writing process, Safran rightly argues, ‘isn’t hard at all’ once you get out. ‘As soon as you go out there and start with your Dictaphone and your notepad you start just hearing stories,’ he says. ‘And then the story starts writing itself.’

Are the hills alive with the sound of writing?

Reading my work out aloud is a mantra I take quite seriously. Verily I have spoken the sentences you’re reading many times. I’ve shaped them from prior versions where they sounded wrong. I’ve listened for clumsy transitions and poor grammar. I speak, I read and write – cutting, pasting and retyping all along the way. The process of reading aloud has become crucial to my writing and it’s got me wondering why I do it and what exactly I’m looking for – is it for a kind of music? Writing and music can share a lexicon, says Dr Graeme Skinner, musicologist, writer, researcher and Honorary Associate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. ‘A lot of the words used to describe music are analogies drawn from literature. I often talk about a musical paragraph as being an analogy for a passage of music. People talk about phrases, and movements – a movement is a corollary of a chapter.’ But are there parallels for someone like Skinner, who knows a lot about both music and writing?

A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.
A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.

‘I think my sense of writing comes more directly from the tradition of writing than from the tradition of music,’ Skinner tells me. ‘However I think they’re very closely linked. For instance the basis of literature is in works like Homer’s The Odyssey – which was actually intended (or recorded from) what was a recited oral history.’

Philosopher Walter Ong speaks to this point in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy. Recording stories in oral cultures (recording them to memory), writes Ong, involved a need for musicality. Thus works like The Odyssey would have been composed through ‘thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence … in heavily, rhythmic, balanced patterns … repetitions or antitheses … alliterations and assonances … epithetic and other formulary expressions.’ (Ong, p34). In noting The Odyssey as both a precursor to (and example of) early literature, Skinner is suggesting that links to musicality linger in our notions of good storytelling – and good writing.

But it’s not just in the far recesses of our storytelling that the two can be linked. Skinner is currently doing research on 19th century Australia. ‘Most 19th century poems that were written in Australia were meant to be sung,’ he says. Readers who consider them just as poetry, ‘are really missing the point. People imagined them to a tune. That’s how they followed the rhyme scheme and how [writers wrote] them in the first place,’ he says.

Not surprisingly, Skinner’s writing revolves around music (it includes scholarly essays, program notes, and a biography of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe). I wonder what influence (if any) this musical knowledge may have on his writerly compositions. But Skinner eschews this notion: ‘My sense of how to write comes from the fact that I read voraciously.’  He always has ‘multiple novels on the go’ and feels his writing improves when he’s reading good work.

Throughout our interview Skinner has had to explain to me (and even demonstrate on his piano) aspects of music that I don’t understand. I have never been trained in music or its theory and in speaking to Skinner I realise that the connections I’m seeking to draw are tenuous at best – that music may be far more complicated than writing.

‘If you reduce writing to something that could be reproduced as a series of sounds – then obviously it’s much simpler,’ says Skinner. ‘But you only have to see the huge libraries of literary criticism that’s written to suggest that it depends on what you call complex.’ What makes writing complex is the creation of meaning, he says. Whereas music, while physically complex, ‘doesn’t have a meaning.’ The meaning comes from the listener. ‘There’s nothing inherent in the music.’

Yet Skinner also concedes that writing isn’t just about the creation of meaning. ‘You can make meaning [as a writer] and nobody wants to read you. Writing’s also about making the sentences jump along and move elegantly, and move beautifully through space and time.’

‘I read aloud in my head but I certainly don’t read aloud,’ Skinner tells me. However he does believe there’s an element to writing in which you consider the musicality of sentence construction. At times, for example, he’ll put an adverb after a verb. ‘Because I like the sound – you’re getting the verb first and then the “ly” on the end of the adverb after it.’ He prefers not to split infinitives, ‘but sometimes if you don’t split an infinitive it sounds really limping – [you split it] in order to keep the momentum or tempo of the sentence.’

‘Maybe there is a connection between the appreciation of writing that sounds good and inherent musicality,’ Skinner says. ‘But I don’t know. Maybe some really good writers can write perfectly well without [a knowledge of] music. Certainly being a musician is no passport to writing well – quite the opposite.’

For this writer at least, that’s music to my ears.

How stories come to be

I draw a line on a sheet of paper. On one side I write the heading ‘Fiction’, the other ‘Non-fiction’. I conjure up elements of writing to categorise into each. But I find that most of the elements are transferable. A poem, for example, can cross both categories, an essay need not be entirely linear. A lot of fiction is built on the foundations of truth and a lot of non-fiction is improved with the tools of fiction. But where the two clearly diverge is in the content of the story. Fiction can be entirely made-up (or based on a mix of truth and made-up). Non-fiction must be drawn from the events of real life. A fiction writer ready to start a new story need only sit down and muse. (I don’t mean to underestimate this act. I know it takes skill.) By contrast a non-fiction writer has to find their story and the elements within it. As Lee Gutkind says, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’

Think of your story as the Amazon; a place with complex life forms, shallows, depths and perhaps a few piranhas. Thanks to jangoertzen for use of this image under creative commons.
Think of your story as the Amazon; a place with complex life forms, shallows, depths and perhaps a few piranhas. Thanks to jangoertzen for use of this image under creative commons.

So where do we find these stories? And how do we know when we have a good story? Bill Birnbauer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Monash University has worked as a journalist and editor for over 30 years. He says that how you find stories will depend on your genre but that ultimately, ‘You need to be curious and you need to be questioning.’

As Birnbauer notes, some writers find stories by watching the rhythms of their local neighbourhood. We can also look at local council websites, and do things like Internet searches for interesting clubs and associations. (One of my favourite stories in this category is Susan Orlean’s 2006 New Yorker piece on Pigeon Fanciers). We can also look at media reports, which Birnbauer says, ‘are not an end point but can be a starting point.’

Writers who are more prolific (journalists in newsrooms for example, or those seeking meatier, potentially long-form topics) widen their story-sourcing nets. Birnbauer says many writers check lists and hearings at Courts, and Civil and Administrative Tribunals. There are also parliamentary inquiries and committees. ‘There are squillions of lesser-attractive-to-the-media decisions that are really good stories [in these sources],’ says Birnbauer. Don’t just look at the outcomes of policy decisions or court cases like these, he says. ‘What veteran reporters and feature writers do is take those decisions, go backwards and ask, “Well how did it come to this?”’

Potential stories need multiple layers. When Birnbauer qualifies a story he considers a number of elements, ‘I start off looking at what information is realistically obtainable, what I would like to get, what I will get and what won’t I get,’ he says. ‘I’m looking for a human face, for an opportunity of observational writing (where I can be descriptive), for tertiary or secondary characters or witnesses [as well as links to] news and opinion.’ He also establishes what’s available in background documents to help better understand the person, people or issue and its history. For example documentation relating to court cases, transcripts, witness statements, company records and speeches made in parliament or elsewhere can all flesh out a story.

‘You have to start out doing pre-research research,’ says Birnbauer. ‘You have to be tough and ask, “Is this a story that I’m going to be happy spending a few weeks pursuing? Is this story worth doing?”’ In the context of long form your ‘pre-investigation’ needs to be particularly rigorous. You need to make sure that you have enough elements to make the story engaging.

Birnbauer refers to parallels made between long form pieces and a river, ‘You have deep, still waters – which is your background,’ he says. ‘Then you’ve got something that’s like rapids where the action, or the tension increases, leading to a kind of climax or highlight. And then it drops away again,’ he says. ‘You’re looking for elements that make up that flow.’

In drawing this parallel Birnbauer calls on Jon Franklin whose section on narrative in Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction bolsters this metaphor (by encouraging us to choose more complex rivers):

‘If you’re going to compare your narrative to a river, then let it be a river that rises high in the thin air of glacier-carved peaks, collecting its strengths from springs and freshets and flowing, murmuring, down mountainsides… a river that pauses there and then moves again, slowly at first and then gathering speed and broadening into shallow rapids… moving now in the company of piranhas through a noisy jungle full of brightly colored birds, monkeys chattering in the overhanging trees...

If your story is to be like a river, for heaven’s sake don’t let that river be the Mississippi. Let it be the Amazon.’ (p137*)

Sometimes a good story idea takes years to come into being. In an interview on Birnbauer advises new writers to, ‘Be annoying and don’t give up.’ Knowing whether or not you have a good idea, ‘really comes down to the determination of the individual,’ Birnbauer tells me. ‘There are stories that just won’t go away in one’s mind – even if you’ve pursued an interview for a long time and been rejected,’ he says. It’s just a niggling in the back of your head.

‘A compelling story with a message that would help a lot of readers understand something is hard to let go of,’ Birnbauer says. In some ways finding stories, ‘is an intuitive feel, [a sense] that there is a story there, that’s probably in the public interest and needs to be told,’ he says.

Both fiction and non-fiction rely on plot devices to keep their readers reading. Many non-fiction writers are captured by the plot-like serendipity behind real life events – just like a trip on the Amazon river these stories can be surprising, terrifying, delightful, mysterious and more. But no matter what you choose to write about, or how you find your story, central to it all says Birnbauer, ‘is that it’s just a great yarn.’

* It’s well worth sourcing

Franklin’s book

and reading the whole passage.

You are your own props department

Here’s how the props department on the television series Treme recreated a vintage bottle of cognac to use in a scene: First they checked out the real deal on the Internet and then found and copied a label they liked. Then they sourced some empty bottles in an antique shop. Next, ‘we cleaned them up, and Joey mixed water and food coloring to get the right color. He found corks to put in the bottle and wax to put a seal on the top. We put it inside a box and then dusted it an aged it down.’ [sic] These words are from Luci Leary, Property Master on Treme, as told to Dave Walker of I found Walker’s article while researching the making of Treme (a television series written by David Simon, set in post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans). The last thing I expected in reading a story about props in a fictional television series was to be inspired about writing long form non-fiction. But Walker (and the props team on Treme) got me to thinking.

Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.
Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.

In as much as producing props and writing non-fiction are different there are similarities. We’re all recreating scenes and conveying character (and to this end, non-fiction writers are our own props departments). Writers are told to show, don’t tell but we can still both show and tell. Props departments can only show. That’s why they must attend to detail like the aging and dusting on a vintage cognac bottle. That’s a discipline we can learn from.

‘It’s important to us that it’s real, that it looks good, and it’s what it would be,’ says, Beau Harrison, Treme’s On Set Property Master. Verily his team breaks down every scene in a script says Walker. They create a list of the objects required then decide exactly what type of object it should be. Mobile phones for example, ‘We usually base this on the character's personality and economic standing,’ Harrison says.

The best non-fiction takes you into a story. It gives you just the right amount of detail; information that’s relevant to scene and character/s. The props team on Treme have the same job only they do the work in reverse. They must acquire objects (including personal effects) to help define their scenes and characters. And then they put all of those objects into a labeled box. Writers start with a page; with the more astute of us collecting detail (props information) about our characters and scenes along the way.

Photographs by Harrison show some of Treme’s props boxes. The character Antoine Batiste’s for example has his watch, sunglasses, keys, ID, iPod and other personal items spread across a table. Separated from the body of Wendell Pierce (who plays Batiste) these objects remind me of toys; of Barbie dolls, clothes and accessories I used to play with as a kid. Batiste may live real in my mind but in truth he’s a fiction and that’s where the work of props teams and long form non-fiction writers diverge.

As someone who spent just a few days in New Orleans over a decade ago, I find the depictions in Treme to be fairly convincing. From the series I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges the city faced in the wake of Katrina. I’ve learnt more about its culture – and things I didn’t know (like their second line parades). But I'm aware that Treme is a fiction, and that to others its fabrication might not be as convincing.

‘I know a real second line when I feel it,’ says Cheryl Austin in a news story on She makes the comment at a sale of the show’s props (following the filming of its final season). She’s a real-life resident of the real-life New Orleans suburb of Treme. She’s not a big fan of the show (any more than many doctors and nurses were fans of ER). To her it lacks authenticity.

‘Don’t make this stuff up!’ I can hear Lee Gutkind (editor of Creative nonfiction magazine) calling to us all. Indeed. The trick is to fill our props boxes as we research – one word at a time.

(Oh, and props to Dave Walker for writing an article that inspired all of this!)

Windows into non-fiction craft

There’s a woman who so regularly walks on the street beyond my desk that a part of me sees her as a colleague. When she passes she seems focused, on her way to do something specific. We’ve never spoken and have only occasionally, briefly (and curiously) locked eyes. I have no idea where she’s going to (or from), nor why. But somehow I’ve felt the need to construct a story about her – and in doing so, to psychologically bring her into my working group (albeit a part of some other ‘department’ in my ‘organisation’). Sure, I’m curious about other people (aren’t all writers?), but I reckon the driving force behind this projection is that I’m a lone (not lonely) freelancer. Just passing by my window brings her into my office. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a writing bull pit – maybe not a newsroom per-se, but perhaps for a magazine. No doubt all the annoyances of shared working environments would be there (office politics, smelly lunches, interruptions, noise). But there would also be that sharing of daily challenges and experiences, that opportunity to learn oodles from those around me.

Windows to craft within easy reach. My copies of Stein, Blundell and Hart (an e-book but also available in print).
Windows to craft within easy reach. My copies of Stein, Blundell and Hart (an e-book but also available in print).

Clearly, on one level I feel isolated enough to project some kind of inclusion on a complete stranger who walks past my window. But I do get daily access to great minds – stalwarts of the international writing community. The truth is, I’m pretty good at reaching out – I simply lift up my hand, stretch out my arm and grasp. There I find the three tomes on writing that influence just about every assignment I undertake.

One of my longest standing mentors has been the great editor (and writer) Sol Stein in his book Solutions for writers: Practical craft techniques for fiction and nonfiction (my copy from Souvenir Press, 2006*). The title says it all: solutions, writers, practical, craft, techniques, fiction and non-fiction. Likewise the title chapters… my favourites include Using the techniques of fiction to enhance non-fiction as well as Liposuctioning flab and Conflict, suspense and tension in non-fiction. Stein’s book has chapters on story, plot, character, dialogue, tension and point of view. Many include checklists (and where they don’t I’ve made my own). I often apply these to my words before I submit. They can flag the obvious and often overlooked – such as ‘Find and delete all the verys and quites that crept into your first draft,' but Stein also poses questions to help improve the story overall. On suspense for example he asks, ‘Can you convert any sentence to a question that will arouse curiosity rather than satisfy it?’ Hmmm, can I?

While Stein helps me work with my written words, sometimes I get stuck on establishing what my story is about. That’s when I turn to William E Blundell’s The art and craft of feature writing (my copy from Plume Books, 1988). In this book Blundell applies his long experience at the Wall Street Journal to help new writers get their stories together. The introduction describes a young reporter amid a ‘snowdrift of material’:

‘Lacking a fix on his story theme, he can’t begin to write because he doesn’t know where to start. So hagridden by angst he waits for lunch and a brighter afternoon only to find – again – that time is his enemy, not his friend.’

Sound familiar? Blundell’s book includes chapters on shaping ideas, story dimensions, organisation and editing. But the resources I return to again and again are his Noodling around checklists. In them Blundell poses questions to help get to the heart of a story (before writing and even researching). It prompts you to consider your story through questions of history, scope, reason, impact, countermoves and futures. Once you’ve answered all those questions you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your story is about (and what research is missing). And that’s just one chapter (Planning and Execution) of its 200+ pages.

Despite the help that Stein and Blundell have given me, until recently I have struggled with the concept of plot (admittedly in both fiction and non-fiction). Of all the events that unfold  in a story which ones do I choose? Sometimes these are obvious, but other times they’re less easy to find. Earlier this year I finally understood it – thanks to Jack Hart in his book, Storycraft (my e-copy by University of Chicago Press, 2011). Hart articulates the connections between events, complications, conflict, resolution, desire, story and plot. My favourite part of Hart’s book is where he draws a narrative arc and explains how to populate it with scenes, episodes, questions, turning points and the story climax. With this the events from my research can finally be shaped into an engaging plot.

So it is: the life of the freelance writer. For experience and advice we turn to great writers. As for a sense of companionship? Well… there’s always the people walking by our windows.

* Stein’s book is also published in the US by St Martin’s Press under the title, Stein on writing (1998)

On not writing

I’m a firm believer in the mantra just write. Whenever I’m hovering in that space between writing and not writing I apply it. Just writing unlocks so much of a writer’s work. It gives you the prose and the thoughts to hone. It gives you a base. It’s a 100% improvement on not writing. But lately I’ve been just writing and finding myself nowhere. I haven’t written anything new for three weeks. I know others might think that’s forgivable but I’m quite disciplined and (for me) a three week gap is pretty bad. I generally don’t procrastinate. I sit at my desk and try to write. One of the reasons I write this blog weekly is to help maintain the discipline of writing regularly. Yet two weeks ago, when I decided I had a problem, I quietly changed the About page to describe this as a fortnightly blog.

The story is there... somewhere.
The story is there... somewhere.

Admittedly my not-writing had been on the back of a dozen deadlines and a super productive time as a Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. Initially I gave myself a few days off writing and put more energy into other things (in particular, my non-writing paid work). Yet each time I sat down to just write I found myself in the same scrabble of words and letters again. A week ago, when I was stumped by the words on my page I simply didn’t post anything. My name is Pepi and I’m not writing. It was the first time since I started this blog.

I worried about it. I tweeted about it. I talked to my friends about it. I distracted myself at the Melbourne Writers Festival. And then I just gave up on it.

Since the ancient Greeks, pantheons of literature have played with the idea of a writer’s muse. In my mind the word conjures images of maidens wearing robes and clutching musical instruments (as well as more modern versions – still women – romanticised and objectified by their writerly men). The first muses were goddesses (hence the robes and feminine overtones). So it is said that muses ‘sing’ to writers and artisans. I say piff to the idea that they’re goddesses. I think muses are our inner voices. But I do reckon they’re singing to us. We just have to listen.

All the while I wasn’t writing I could only think, ‘I’m not writing!’ One evening last week I pondered somewhat bitterly what today’s post could be about. ‘I could call it On not writing,’ I thought mirthlessly to myself. Straight away the words and images came forth. My muse had been singing to me all along.

I often find that’s the case. After I’ve done my research on a topic there’s usually an element that bubbles to the top and that’s where I start. Like in this piece on Old Time dancing in Outback Magazine. (I loved the fact that these energetic dances were occurring in the most remote places). Or in this post on Killings where I was so embarrassed by my first response to an air-kiss by comic artist Sam Wallman that I made it the centre of the story.

That’s what this period of not writing has taught me. The story is always there. The muse is always singing. It’s just that sometimes you have turn those songs upside down and inside out to get the words on the page.

The ideology of ideas

As a student of writing, nothing freaked me out more than that moment in class when the teacher stopped talking, took in a breath and said, ‘Right, let’s workshop.’ Initially I would be embarrassed by my sprawling prose (I’m a perennial drafter). But the main source of my horror was my inability to come up with any genuinely new ideas. No matter what I thought of, I knew that a simple search in Google would render my ideas ‘already thought of’ (except, perhaps if I was writing a profile). As a student of writing I took the notion of an original idea quite literally. I thought it was my job to find something never written about before. Ever. Anywhere.

Perhaps ideas, like 'energy', take new forms as they travel through our cosmos. Thanks to cmbjn843 for use of this image Waterfalls2 under Creative Commons.
Perhaps ideas, like 'energy', take new forms as they travel through our cosmos. Thanks to cmbjn843 for use of this image Waterfalls2 under Creative Commons.

In my efforts to better grasp what makes an idea, I did a search on Google. There’s nothing original in the action of searching a topic, nor is there anything original in including those results within the body of your prose. But there was something interesting about the results that I got for ‘ideas’. Many of the page one results had nothing to do with ideas per se. They used I-D-E-A as an acronym for something else. They connected ‘idea’ with other things. As an aggregation of worldwide use of the word, they were as confused as I was. Inherent in their inability to give true shape to the word, these results pointed to my hunch that ideas are idealised.

Among them was an online idea generator. ‘Type a single word and receive a page chock-full of inspiration!’ it reads. It then pulls images, quotes, colours and other paraphernalia relating to that word from the Internet. It’s a system that recognises that there’s no such thing as an original idea. No one ever comes to an idea in the absence of inspiration (direct or indirect). Creativity experts have long established that you can’t have an original idea without first understanding the domain in which you’re working. You can’t build an original idea in a vacuum. You need other ideas. To me what they’re saying is an idea is never really original. Ideas are by their nature, derivative.

I’m not a scientist (not in the vaguest) but this week Professor Brian Cox has captured my imagination in his series Wonders of Life. He explains ‘energy’ from a physics perspective. ‘Energy is conserved. It’s not created or destroyed,’ he says. It seems a physicist can calculate the potential energy at the top of a waterfall and observe the exact energy output at its foot (the movement, sounds, heat and so on). In nature, says Cox (if I’ve understood it correctly), energy moves through different forms, but it doesn’t multiply - the total amount of energy on our planet remains. Perhaps this is what happens with ideas; one idea gives shape to another. Maybe a transfer of energy is what makes it possible for the same idea to have new life in the words of different writers. Maybe an idea’s energy simply takes a different form.

Currently I’m working on a long form piece about a topic that’s interested me for a long time. But as I get deeper into the research I can see that other writers have also dabbled in aspects of it. My younger writer-self would have come to a grinding halt at this discovery. ‘Oh dear, it’s been done,’ I would have thought. But now I realise that the originality involved in the piece isn’t so much about the main idea as much as the exposition, execution and context of the words. What is it that I uncover about this topic? What is it that my readers will want to know about this topic? In what ways will this topic be framed differently for the publication I’m writing for? What effect will my voice have? In what ways will my perspective shape the energy of this idea differently?

Last year at NonfictioNow a writer put a question to keynote speaker Jose Dalisay (from the Philippines). The writer wanted to know Dalisay’s perspective as a Pilipino writer who writes about the Philippines. What did Dalisay think about writers writing about their home countries while living abroad? What authority did those writers have if they weren’t actually there to observe things first hand? That, Dalisay answered, is precisely the authority they have. A writer’s authority is inherent. Every perspective is unique. Ideas might circulate in our collective consciousness (and on search engines) but what makes each iteration different is what the writer brings to it.

In their shoes

I often wonder what it’s like to be in an editor’s shoes. Not only am I curious about the lives of others, but also I have a desire for professionalism and teamwork. I want to make publishing as seamless and as easy as possible. I figure it’s the least I can do in the writer:editor equation. Whenever I submit to a new publication I try not to inadvertently drop a stone into my editor’s shoes. I seek out its style guide and if there isn’t one, I make my own by noting the publication’s spelling and punctuation choices. I check my work against my pitch and try to write my best. I worry about things like grammar too. But Jo Case Senior Writer / Editor at the Wheeler Centre (and author of Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s) says, ‘Grammar is the least important because it’s the easiest to fix.’

It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.
It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.

I’m heartened when she tells me this. But I still wonder, are there things we commonly do that can make life difficult for an editor like Case? She says that writers don’t commonly make the same mistakes, but there are a few things we could avoid – things might that set an editor’s feet tapping impatiently.

Using all caps is a no-no for example, ‘An editor has to take them out and actually retype them,’ says Case. Likewise putting spaces where there ought not to be spaces or using single quotes when the publication uses double quotes. These can be addressed with a ‘find and replace’ but they still require manual intervention and editorial time. Case advises against using acronyms too, ‘Because you often have to be an insider to understand them.’

Another difficulty for editors is when writers fail to meet the agreed word count. ‘Sometimes writers think if they go a bit over it doesn’t matter so much because the editor can just cut it out. But you can’t just lop off the end of an article. You need to find the spot to cut it,’ says Case. This again, can take some time. Stick to the word count – particularly if writing for print.

After receiving a submission, the first thing that Case assesses is how a piece flows and whether it works as a whole. She says she most frequently adds more punctuation to improve the rhythm (things like dashes, semicolons and commas). ‘I’m just punctuating it as you would speak it,’ she says. Before submitting, always read your work aloud.

In ensuring the coherent argument of a piece, Case finds herself tinkering with introductions and conclusions the most. Sometimes the piece doesn’t flow because writers fail to include something important or obvious. ‘Because you know it in your head you might forget that you haven’t written something in, or that you took it out,’ says Case. Ask yourself what the reader needs to know. ‘If there are complex ideas in there, make sure that they are explained,’ she says.

Little niggly things are easy enough to fix – but it’s good teamwork to have them addressed before you submit. Of course, the most important thing from an editor’s perspective is an interesting idea that’s expressed in an interesting way, says Case. ‘Because that’s what you can’t fix.’

A short list of choice cuts from EWF13

Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival may be over for another year, but I’m going to sustain myself with some writing-protein with these choice cuts. They’re my favourite words of advice from the established writers who presented at Seven Enviable Lines. These are paraphrased and comments from me are in brackets: Melinda Harvey: There is no such thing as 'made it' when it comes to writing. The blank page always waits.

Thanks to Cyril Bosselut for use of this image Scissors vs Paper under Creative Commons.
Thanks to Cyril Bosselut for use of this image Scissors vs Paper under Creative Commons.

John Safran: Churn out ideas. (As a copywriter Safran had to generate a page of 30 ideas before he was allowed to pitch at creative meetings). Stop being in love with that one idea. Also don’t micromanage a killer idea; just keep writing.

Kharani 'Okka' Baroka: Work for the heart, not for the hype.

Jennifer Mills: You’re not a brand; you’re a person. Challenge yourself creatively and technically. ‘Let your work be worth something that is more than the cover price.’ (I loved hearing Mills tell us we’re not a brand – so often emerging writers are implored to ‘build a platform’ aka a brand).

Walter Mason: Become a fan of writers and books. Be enthusiastic about literature and writing. (Plus:) Run, don’t walk! Use up every bit of enthusiasm you have. Enthusiasm and a sense of time passing can take you a long way.

I’ll be resuming normal prose in a fortnight’s time. In the meantime I hope these cuts can sustain you! (And if they don't, check out my previous posts)

Circling worlds (with Walter Mason)

‘If you could have dinner with anyone outside of your circle, who would it be?’ It’s a question asked both at celluloid dinner parties and by journalists aiming to learn more about their subject. Some find the question easier to answer than others, but most agree that the opportunity is one to seize. Tapping into new knowledge from someone well respected helps us to understand our world more deeply, to see it through others’ eyes and to learn from their experience. I wonder if The Control Room is a concept unique to the Emerging Writers’ Festival. It’s the conference equivalent to that dinner-date. An established practitioner sits at the head of a table, ready to take questions. Conference delegates circle around and drive the conversation entirely. There is the occasional conversational lull, but the freedom to ask an expert anything makes the awkward easy to overcome, particularly when the writer is as generous as Walter Mason.

In more ways than one Walter Mason encourages writers to get outside. Thanks to toastkid for use of this image Where I work: turtle cafe, new dehli under Creative Commons.
In more ways than one Walter Mason encourages writers to get outside. Thanks to toastkid for use of this image Where I work: turtle cafe, new dehli under Creative Commons.

Mason describes himself as a ‘writer, scholar and dreamer’. He’s researched and written while circumnavigating the globe (check out his book Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam). He gives us some great tips on international research and navigating cultures outside of our own. ‘When travelling, say yes to everything. It gets you into crazy situations,’ he advises. Those crazy situations give you unique things to write about, and take you deeper into the local culture than otherwise.

Mason encourages writers to get into the undertow of different cultures but warns that in doing that we need to respect all aspects of those cultures – including protecting our sources and subjects from the legal and political frameworks in which they live. He often changes up genders, locations and gives his characters aliases to ensure they don’t get into trouble when he writes about them. ‘Put yourself in their rule,’ Mason advises writers. This phrase applies to both what we choose to write about our sources and how we conduct ourselves overseas. Be very careful of filing your writing from within a foreign country says Mason (if you can, it’s better to wait and file from home). Think about where and when you need to label yourself as a ‘writer’ (particularly in paperwork).

With an almost-filled notebook in hand, Mason shares his travel writing process. In one trip of three to six months he’ll easily fill half a dozen of these hand-written tomes. He has special marks he uses to index and navigate them. He is always careful to note specifics (names and addresses of places for example). He uses those details to help fill up his imagination once he gets to writing. Mason also allocates two hours a day for writing during his travels. One hour has to be outside with his journal taking hand-written notes. The other hour is inside with his computer (this writing is more prosaic). Mason writes both on location and once he returns home.

He describes himself as a post-modern writer. ‘I just write about what I want to write about,’ says Mason. He doesn’t worry too much about plot-progression while he’s writing and says his stories are more impressionistic than involving a narrative arch. Mason questions the value of the ‘journey narrative’ in travel writing, arguing that because readers are travelling more themselves the journey itself has less interest.

Emerging writers are always interested to know how more established writers got their first break. Mason is a firm believer in networks (indeed at the Seven Enviable Lines session that kicked off the conference ‘network’ was Mason’s number five: ‘I’ve never been hired on my skills and abilities,’ he quipped). ‘Do stuff for other people,’ he tells The Control Room. ‘Get ahead by helping others.’ Mason says his sales job in publishing gave him the contacts he needed. But it wasn’t the job itself that got his work read by editors, it was the efforts he made in navigating that world, in meeting and helping people.

Soon the hour-long session is up, and we are all closing our notebooks and gathering our coats (this writer at least, feeling very much inspired). ‘Let me know what you’re doing. I’d love to help out in any way I can,’ Mason says in closing, encouraging us to extend our network. We all nod shyly.

Later I realise there is something he might be able to help me with, so I introduce myself to him at another session. Dinner, I’m sure, would too awkward (and anyhow, he’s based in Sydney) but I do appreciate the possibility of a telephone call or email exchange with someone who is not only outside of my circle but also well respected.

The inside of a memoir

Turning the cover of a memoir is like opening a small paperback door. The title page, publication information and prologue are curtains that gently billow us in. The first paragraph locates us and introduces us to its narrator. Soon we are joining another - learning from their life experiences, mapping their challenges and achievements. That memoir draws from real life is part of its appeal to readers. But what is like to write a memoir, to define the story in the reality of the everyday? Over the past few years Jo Case, a writer and editor (currently Senior Writer/Editor at the Wheeler Centre) has been working on Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s. I ask Case how she overcame what I imagine is a big challenge of writing memoir: having a 24/7 immersion in her subject. ‘The first thing I did was a very rough chapter plan,’ she says. Although her plan changed over time, it still gave her broad direction.

Turning the cover of a memoir is like opening a door. Thanks to nino** for this image, Through the Door, under Creative Commons.
Turning the cover of a memoir is like opening a door. Thanks to nino** for this image, Through the Door, under Creative Commons.

While following that direction, Case also allowed herself some freedom in her first draft. ‘There’s a bit of a filter when you’re writing but I just tried to write what I was going to write and then go back and edit,’ she says. Once she had her story down Case looked for prose that was extraneous (the proverbial darlings). ‘There were little bits I had in there that I liked in terms of what they said about the characters in the book. But they weren’t actually necessary and they weren’t actually telling you anything that you didn’t see elsewhere or that you really needed to know,’ she says. Even after she sent her self-edited manuscript to her editor, Case estimates a further 20 thousand words were both cut and added.

Writing memoir raises the question of when and how to include other people. Case wrote a piece in Meanjin about her biggest challenge in this context: writing about her son. But there were other character portrayals to be considered too. ‘I would think about the fact that the writers who I admire don’t write with a view to being nice. They don’t write with a view to being mean either but there’s a certain amount of courage in there,’ she says. Case told the story as she saw it in her first draft. It wasn’t until she was editing that she gave rein to her anxieties and conscience about specific characters.

Like many writers Case had days when everything she wrote seemed bad to her. ‘I am so critical of myself. That was one of my biggest hurdles when I was writing,’ she says. She had periods of inactivity when she was convinced that her prose was poor, either because it was impossible to write or because it came too freely. At these times she drew on her knowledge of craft. ‘I knew that you have to write crap and then write through it to get to the good stuff. But it’s one thing to intellectually know that and another to actually deal with the fact that you’re creating words that make you feel like you’re no good.’ Nevertheless Case did dealt with it and now has a respected book to show.

For Case, self-belief was a challenge that related not only to her prose, but also to her genre. ‘I felt really narcissistic about [writing memoir]. I felt embarrassed when people would ask me what I was writing... It felt like the cheesiest thing to be doing. And I don’t feel cheesy about the book,’ she says. Memoir is not without its detractors. But Case overcame these concerns by studying her genre carefully. She wrote her conclusions in a popular post on her blog, Problem Child: In Defence of the Memoir.

In talking to me she sums up her philosophy about what makes a good memoir and writing in general. ‘I like reading books where the author clearly hasn’t made up their mind about what kind of perspective they’re trying to give you. [It’s more like they’re] exploring questions than trying to give you an answer,’ she says. Case kept this top of mind while writing. ‘I tried to keep thinking that I should be learning. I tried to keep questioning myself and to not just write things as they happened but to think a little more deeply about it – to be unafraid to leave things open,’ she says.

Which is an engaging way to close a memoir really… leaving things to resonate in its readers’ lives.

A telling story…

‘You know your story is being heard, understood and received by the way your audience is breathing,’ says Julie Perrin of Telling Words. She’s not only a storywriter, but also a storyteller  – she performs many of the stories she writes. ‘Whether they make those little gasps or laughs or sighs, whether they’re relaxed or fidgeting and on edge: all of these bodily, nonverbal communications are part of what carries it. Both from you to the audience but also between them.’ Perrin’s seen what happens when a story falls flat and she knows when a story is resonating. She’s aware of the nonverbal communications that can keep writers distanced from our readers. As a writer for print I hate being in the same room as someone reading my work, every twitch and raised eyebrow sends me into a tangle of anxiety. Yet the way Perrin describes the conventions of telling stories, I wonder if the ability to have such a tangible connection with the audience might be a benefit.

Julie Perrin (top right in blue, talking) of Telling Words has an understanding of her audience that many writers don't.
Julie Perrin (top right in blue, talking) of Telling Words has an understanding of her audience that many writers don't.

‘There are lovely conventions of repeated rhythms, alliteration and internal playing with sound that make it more memorable, and can lull people. There are repeated refrains that are like being rocked and (in the right moment) the people really appreciate that,’ says Perrin. In person or on paper, her awareness of how this musicality is received must surely be an asset. ‘There are other moments where it needs to become really sharp, witty and acerbic,’ she adds. These descriptions of hers make me wonder how different her writing process is for print and performance (she’s been published in The Age, The Big Issue and Visible Ink).

In fact, when she has a story idea, Perrin isn’t always sure whether she will print it or perform it. ‘I often run two different versions – not wildly different – but there’s just a slightly different inflection,’ she says. As her stories evolve Perrin decides whether her words will remain in print or be pared back for performance. When chosen for performance the artifact changes. ‘Ultimately you can have the most beautiful text but [if you’re going to tell it rather than print it] you can’t just sprout a text like a recitation because all of your energy is in remembering those words you’ve tried to learn,’ she says. ‘Audiences can see you trying to remember.’

Perrin breaks the to-be-told stories down to key words and storyboards, and she maps their locations and objects in the space around her in order to ground her listeners. The story might even change in the performance itself. ‘In any spoken story there’s a reciprocal relationship between the story, the listener and the teller. How a story is listened to by a group of people effects how it can be told. The story shifts with the quality of the listening,’ she says.

‘You really can’t make it too literary, so it’s about being artful with the everyday rather than trying to be really clever with very intense and dense language,’ Perrin says of choosing words for spoken delivery. But to me her advice seems apt for written work. Perrin describes the delivery of spoken work as ephemeral. ‘Essentially speaking it is just shaped air. That’s what it is. It’s here today and it’s gone in a second. The beginning of uttering a word: it’s almost over before it’s begun,’ she says. To me, a first-read is similarly fleeting.

Delivering to audiences has taught Perrin the importance of a moment in storytelling – of the tangible aspects of what writers make. Yet although an audience’s response may seem telling in one performance, unlike me, Perrin knows to take each twitch and raised eyebrow as they come. ‘There are all these different kinds of breath-response. There are all these different kinds of stories,’ she says, stating that just because one audience doesn’t scream with laughter or sob in sadness, it doesn’t mean your story and your writing is any less powerful or beautiful. ‘You just need to seek to inhabit it,’ she says.

Lost in translerpretation

That I don’t know the right word in my native tongue shows how fraught this activity can be. I’ve googled ‘journalist translator’ and other variations of these words for weeks. The results are not what I’m looking for. Finally one link takes me to another and I realise my problem: what I’m trying to understand is the process of working with an interpreter. Although related, translator and interpreter are two different things. So just in case you’re as naïve as me, let’s get this difference sorted: a translator works with a printed text and translates it into a different language (also of printed text), an interpreter works in an interpersonal situation interpreting real-time speech from one language to the other.

Interpreters and translators: language-bridgers when we research across the pond.
Interpreters and translators: language-bridgers when we research across the pond.

Nic Low, Manager of the International Writing Program at Asialink, says the process of working with an interpreter can be challenging. ‘When writers get together they’re some of the most excitable and talkative people you could ever hope to meet. It’s in that fluid exchange of ideas through conversation that connections are made [and] that parallels in your work are formed,’ he says. Introduce an interpreter and that fluidity can feel a little swampy.

‘It’s like being underwater. It all happens in slow motion because after everything you say you have to stop and wait while the interpreter translates,’ says Low. Yet a change of pace can also be helpful: waiting half a minute between exchanges gives writers the opportunity to formulate stronger questions. ‘It can [also] allow for some of the most succinct and concise conversation,’ Low says.

I try to imagine this painstaking exchange in the context of the questions writers must ask. ‘Some people find it incredibly difficult. It’s like having an intimate conversation with someone but having someone else in the room,’ says Low. I feel the awkwardness of putting the hard questions to an interviewee, and then picture that with an interpreter. Are there times when an interpreter fudges or slightly rephrases something contentious or culturally sensitive?

‘My observation is that their training is all about staying neutral,’ says Low. If you ask a personal or culturally challenging question, your interpreter must also ask it. Qualified interpreters are fluent in both languages. This means writers working with these interpreters should feel confident not only about their questions getting through (eventually) but also about the quality of responses. ‘With a good interpreter there won’t be any broken English or odd turns of phrase. It’ll all come to you crystal clear in either language,’ says Low.

The emphasis on neutrality means that interpreters can’t be expected to help navigate the cultural terrain. What you need for this is a fixer. ‘This is someone who can walk you through the potential pitfalls and can show you how you can do what you need to do in a way that’s respectful,’ says Low. These folks have connections and ideally some knowledge in the field you’re researching in. They’ll help you get around a foreign country, linguistically, culturally, geographically and bureaucratically.

There are various grades to interpretation. Cost will depend on your location and other factors. At times Low says, a top-grade interpreter can charge in the order of AUD$700 to $900 per day. ‘But it’s very unlikely that any [writers] would be able to afford them,’ he says. Instead he recommends we find our own champions. ‘If you’ve got someone whose English you trust, who can come along with you voluntarily, that’s the most feasible way of doing it,’ he says. [See also this post on International Research].

Low advises writers on the Asialink program to learn as much of their soon-to-be local language as possible before leaving Australia. No matter how organised or cashed-up you may be there will invariably be times when you will be without an interpreter (or getting by with the help of someone who has English as a second language). He also tells writers to, ‘be constantly signaling your intention to communicate, your intention to listen and to understand, to not show impatience or frustration… Be very present in your listening, maintain eye contact to give the kind of phatic communion signals that we give in everyday conversation.’ These non-verbal signals can take you a long way.

Dealing with translation may sound far less complicated but Low warns us not to underestimate this work either. ‘There is a real creativity to good literary translation,’ he says. ‘It’s not about creating your own work but it’s about having sufficient expertise, depth of knowledge and being a really good writer yourself.’ Literary translators need an ear for a writer’s rhythm and emphasis, and for the music of language.

Appreciating the difference between translators and interpreters has captured me in a semantic loop. I realise that many times I’ve said ‘lost in translation’ when ‘lost in interpretation’ would be more correct (but something more is surely lost in applying the words correctly!) For now I’m going with ‘lost in translerpretation’.

For a great long form read follow this link to Nic Low's piece about the Christchurch earthquake in the Griffith Review.

The sound of wise words

If I stop typing now there is relative silence. There’s no editor talking shop while pacing through my room. No fellow writers sit nearby. I can’t overhear someone conducting a difficult phone interview the in the next cubicle. I don’t get ongoing circulars to all staff about new research tools or resources. I can’t ask a respected sub a quick question about grammar. I can’t readily get a colleague to help me find the right structure or lead. Sometimes this silence is golden. All I can hear is the wind in the trees, birds tweeting above and children playing at the nearby school. But other times – when the silence is due to my isolation and inexperience – it’s all too frustrating. It’s the silence that comes from not having the information, skills or expertise to move forward. It’s the silence that’s got me to thinking about the idea of a mentor.

Without a mentor my ear might as well be made of stone. Thanks to Anja Jonsson for use of this image Ear of a stone head under Creative Commons.

With the downsizing of newsrooms and publishing houses more and more writers are working in isolation. ‘They want someone who can guide them long term [and who] they can turn to more than once,’ says Sally Williams, Marketing and Membership Coordinator at Writers Victoria. Williams runs Writers Victoria’s twice-yearly mentorship program. ‘When we open applications we get absolutely swarmed with people, and in between… we get loads of enquiries,’ she says. So it seems I’m not the only one interested in a bit of professional guidance.

According to Williams, the key to a successful mentor-mentee relationship is being prepared and totally clear about what you want to achieve. ‘Don’t just come into it and expect the mentor to be able to wave the magic wand and make things better. [Writers need to set] clear measurable short and long term goals that they can achieve.’

‘If we didn’t have that goal-setting process I could see the relationship falling into a weird, useless exercise in not much,’ says Samantha van Zweden, freelance writer, blogger and bookseller. She has a mentoring arrangement with writer, editor and reviewer Laurie Steed. Steed and van Zweden’s mentorship evolved organically from a professional association. But other writers find mentors by approaching directly or going via a program like the one at Writers Victoria.

One of the biggest challenges for all writers in mentorships is in meeting expectations says Williams. ‘A few mentors will really crack the whip and have expectations of what they think the mentee should achieve by the next meeting.’ Williams has often seen writers struggling to keep up. ‘The mentor offers the guidance but the writer still has to go away and do the hard yards,’ she says.

For van Zweden these hard yards are part of the benefits a mentor arrangement can bring. ‘That’s to do with accountability. Because I know there’s someone rooting for me, I want to reach that point. He won’t expect something of me that I can’t do,’ she says. So when Steed sets her a challenge she does everything in her power to achieve it.

Right now van Zweden and her mentor are working on preparing pieces for publication and stretching her multi-sensory descriptions. ‘He’s encouraging me to use all my senses and setting me specific exercises to work towards that.’ Steed has also helped her with goal-setting, improving her writing and pitching stories.

The Writers Victoria program involves six one-hour sessions. The first is an overview mapping expectations and goals. ‘From there each session is about looking at progress made and focusing on any weak spots that the mentor might identify in the work (or parts that the writer’s really struggling with),’ says Williams. Van Zweden and Steed take a less formal approach. They’re based in different states and prefer as-needs email correspondence.

A paid mentorship can cost anywhere between AUD$50 and $100 per hour depending on who your mentor is. (It’s $60 per hour in the Writers Victoria program). There are also mentors who aren’t paid, or who are paid in kind by mentees who undertake research or other tasks. Van Zweden says that it’s important for mentees to show their appreciation, ‘I know that it’s very generous for [Steed] to give me a mentorship in terms of time and brainpower. So I make [the tasks he sets] a priority, to show it the respect it deserves,’ she says. And let’s not forget that there’s something in it for mentors too. ‘By identifying problems in someone else’s work and helping them through it [the mentors are] learning about their own writing,’ says Williams.

In addition to providing guidance, Steed has helped van Zweden build her confidence and expand her perspective. He’s helped identify weaknesses in her writing and even at times, what music to listen to (they both write to music). He’s also acted as a champion for her work, and made relevant introductions. ‘The doors that are opened because he’s there… wouldn’t be there otherwise. I’m eternally flattered about how much he’s gotten behind what I do,’ she says.

All in all Williams says that mentorships hum along nicely, bringing benefits to all parties. ‘There have been a lot of ‘ah ha’ moments,’ says van Zweden of her exchanges with Steed.

‘Ah ha!’ - sounds like just the words to fill my silence of inexperience.



Help me raise funds for earthquake and tsunami victims

Last week I wrote a post about remembering 3/11. You can read more about my experience of the Japanese Earthquake and make a small donation to earthquake and tsunami victims by downloading my long form essay.

All royalties on sales this month (March 2013 inclusive) will go to the Japan Red Cross Earthquake and Tsunami fund.

More details are outlined on my website

If there’s anything you can do to help spread word of this fundraising effort I’d be most appreciative.


On story and spin: Remembering 3/11

It’s that time of year. I want to add the word, ‘again’ – but the repetition is pre-emptive. Today is the first time I mark the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake outside of Japan. Last year I went back for the official memorial service. Two years ago, when the earthquake struck, I was living in Sendai, the closest city to the epicentre. As a long standing graduate of Media Studies I thought I had a good understanding of how the media machine worked. Yet it took my experience of being in that disaster to grasp these processes fully. Being the reported-on rather than the reporter increased my sensitivity to telling a story fairly, to checking facts and being considerate of those I’m writing about. Story is crucial to non-fiction but there is a fine line between story and spin.

The perspective from where I was standing when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.

I never missed my media more than in the days after the earthquake. My partner and I were in the eye of a media storm. We had no electricity, no phones and no internet. We couldn’t speak Japanese, so talking to our neighbours was out. We sat, ignorant and in darkness while screens across the world glowed with information about what was happening around us. The earthquake struck at 2.46pm Japan-time (4.46pm in Melbourne). It wasn’t until 9.00pm that we learned a huge tsunami had inundated communities less than 10 kilometres away. This was five hours after the event.

Of course, when our electricity and internet was restored a few days later I was hungry for information. The first thing I did was go to the websites of English language newspapers. It didn’t take me long to wish I hadn’t.

It wasn’t that these newspapers were giving me dire information. I already knew the situation was pretty grim. It was that these newspapers were taking a sensational angle on the information they had. They were highly selective in what they chose to publish, and from my quiet perch in Sendai I could finally see the play between story and spin. I could understand it too: the readerships of these papers (and some of their reporters) were safely ensconced overseas.

Radiation fears from plant explosion’ is a harrowing headline to read when you’re less than 100 kilometres from said plant. I remember looking for information in detailed articles like this while I was in Sendai. But I realised that though I was among the most in need of information I was not the target audience. The reports weaved information with schadenfreude and titillation. For me, the spin went in the wrong direction.

I read about a colleague reported as missing when in fact he wasn’t. I heard stories of TV journalists insisting interviews with locals were conducted outside one of the few significantly damaged buildings in Sendai city. These reports invariably ended with speculation. They were guaranteed page-turners investing an appetite for the next day’s news. The best advice I got that week was from an Australian consulate official. He told me not to look at news sites but instead, the embassy sites. These were produced by people in the business of providing information. Understanding this difference between news and information was a revelation for me.

In the past week I’ve seen reports anticipating the second anniversary of the earthquake. Again I am reminded that distance makes a difference to spin. So many of these English-language reports are focused on the worst and most tragic of the situation: a story about lingering radioactivity, another about suicides.

Watching and reading these with the perspective of someone who was there heightens my awareness of my duties as a writer. Lee Gutkind says, ‘you can’t make this stuff up,’ and serious writers of non-fiction try not to. But what we choose to focus on is critical, the way we frame our questions, select our words and write up our stories will always put a spin on things. Writers, take care.

Not surprisingly I am super sensitive to reports on this particular event. It brings up fears and memories that at times I’d like to forget. I don’t appreciate the negativity put on the futures of people I care about. But as a writer I am grateful for what will be an annual reminder of the need for balance. It will always encourage me to use my words respectfully.


Help me raise funds for earthquake and tsunami victims

Make a small donation to earthquake and tsunami victims by downloading my long form essay about my experience of the earthquake.

All royalties on sales this week (11 to 17 March 2013 inclusive) will go to the Japan Red Cross Earthquake and Tsunami fund.

More details are outlined on my website

If there’s anything you can do to help spread word of this fundraising effort I’d be most appreciative.


The feedback loop

It’s interesting that the Macquarie Dictionary defines feedback in the mechanical manner first, ‘1. The returning of a part of the output of any system, especially a mechanical, electronic or biological one, as input, especially for correction or control purposes, to alter the characteristic sound of conventional musical instruments, etc.’ It’s the second meaning that usually defines my general use of the word, ‘2. An indication of the reaction of the recipient, as of an audience.’ Feedback is a big part of my writing process. I regularly get writer-friends to read my work. I’m part of an ongoing writers’ workshop. My partner is made to read almost everything I write. I look at the stats of my blog to establish the popularity of some posts over others. When I write for online publications I seek what feedback I can from readers’ comments. That loop of feedback and refinement pushes many writers along.

Maybe this device can help process feedback?Thanks to greetings.from for use of this image True Bypass/Feedback Loop Pedal (WIP Pedal 1) under Creative Commons.
Maybe this device can help process feedback?Thanks to greetings.from for use of this image True Bypass/Feedback Loop Pedal (WIP Pedal 1) under Creative Commons.

This week my writers’ workshop met in a wood-lined Melbourne café among the clatter of cups and saucers. Joining the din of the crowd we gave our writers feedback. We had one of those sessions that divided the group. Our usual quorum of five was down to three – so it was a hilarious case of two heads banging with contrasting opinions and one writer listening carefully to the debate. Thankfully I wasn’t that writer. I wondered what was going through her head.

In the first year of my writing course I had a teacher who was loath to give specific feedback. We’d read something together and she’d give an opinion, then in a moment she’d take a completely different position. Sometimes she’d say nothing at all. It was the first class of my first year and I wanted to Learn To Write. As long as my teacher didn’t tell me what was right and what was wrong I thought my goal to Learn To Write would be thwarted. I found the class infuriating and dropped it after one semester.

Years later an administrative glitch forced my return to the second part of that class. I’d completed the entire course bar that one semester. I resented more time with the seemingly undecided teacher. I went to the class with my brow pre-furrowed. I wasn’t the only first-year dropout forced to return, familiar faces from years ago confirmed my notion that this was a pointless class.

But by the end of the second semester the teacher became one of my favourites. In the years that intervened I’d learned more about writing. I understood now what she had been trying to teach me in first year: that there are essentially no rules to this process – the important thing is to write. Just write and see what comes. Don’t feel success is in mimicking other writers. Trust your voice and understand that what you’re writing will not resonate with everyone. By refusing to give a specific opinion (rather than accepting many varied opinions) this teacher was trying to nurture our own unique voices, creativity and judgement.

I struggled with an essay earlier this year. It wasn’t finished (and I knew it) but I wanted some forward motion on the damn thing. So I muddled an ending I wasn’t sold on and sent it out for feedback. I got the most diverse set of feedback I ever have. Opinions were polarised and the essay even sent a few people on thought tangents ‘Blah blah…sorry, wrong place!’ one wrote after a few pars of commentary. My desk seemed as noisy as the café where my workshop meets.

As my fellow feedbacker and I continued to disagree in the cacophony of the café I took pity on our writer. How fraught the process of getting feedback is! In this sense, the dictionary’s priority of a mechanical definition is more appropriate. Sometimes feedback is just noise. It’s your inner voice that speaks the loudest. That’s where you must return.

Non-fiction stories

I’m in a gallery looking at photographs. Well, in this context ‘photographs’ may be a misleading word. These images are on photographic paper but actually they’re abstract moments in chemistry and light. They comprise dribbles, daubs and geometric shapes in different tones of browns, oranges and blue. Apart from one image, which has the faint impression of a silhouetted head, there is nothing particularly ‘photographic’ or recognisable in what I see on these sheets of paper. I step into the next room. Here are journalistic portraits. These images feel far more accessible, and I realise that despite my openness to considering new applications of photography my true interest is in photojournalism. I notice the connection between this and my writing. ‘It’s non-fiction for me!’ I quip to my companion.

What does the reader need to know? How is this relevant to the story? Thanks to ippei + janine for use of this image Through the Mt Martha scrub under Creative Commons.

The heat in the gallery is stifling. So we head outside to deckchairs at Federation Square where I sit in the breeze by the river watching the world go by: non-fiction at its purest. Yet my eye is constantly drawn to the colour and movement on the big screen above the empty stage. At first I am ashamed at how easily the packaged visuals distract me from the non-fiction around me. But then I realise the advantage the screen has: story. That’s what makes the edited footage more interesting. It’s not pure non-fiction that I love. It's non-fiction stories.

I’ve always known that story is important to writing, but understanding and applying that as a writer can be difficult. When I am researching a non-fiction article I am generally able to find a good story (and angle). But when I’m writing something non-fiction that’s based on my own experience I get completely flummoxed. Of all the moments in any experience, which are relevant to the story? Recently I sat on a boardwalk next to an estuary, and I realised that I might be drawing closer to an answer for this question.

As I sat a fisherman appeared. He threw his line in the water and settled nearby. I asked him what he was fishing for. He answered. Then I asked him if there are fish that swim in the ocean as well as the estuary (forgive me, I don’t know about these things). ‘Well, I’ll tell you a story,’ the fisherman said. And then he proceeded to do quite the opposite. He started by noting a new housing development somewhere, and then there was some connection to his accountant, and something about his tax return. And then there was a barbeque (maybe in the accountant’s house?), and then we were back at the new housing development and it ends up it was built on a watercourse. And toward the end of all this noise I got the story: someone somewhere up a river once saw a gummy shark, and apparently that’s surprising.

Jack Hart’s book Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, has been a turning point in my understanding of how best to tell stories. Thanks to him, I now have a mantra: ‘What does the reader need to know?’ By asking this constantly as I write personal (and other) non-fiction stories I feel more able to sort the story from less relevant real-life action: the gummy shark from the accountant, the big screen from the passing parade. If I don’t tell my readers what they need to know they will be sitting at a barbeque with an accountant when in fact I want them back at the gallery with the abstract photographs.

These abstract images contrast sharply with the photojournalism in the next room. Yet there is something curious in them for me and that comes from their story. The exhibition blurb explains that they are darkroom rejects – sheets of paper fished from rubbish bins then reinterpreted by photographers Greg Neville and Greg Wayn. The images alone are open to a wide interpretation. But once I have their story, I can picture much more.

Follow your heart

Last week, a writer-friend whom I greatly respect told me I was ‘dedicated’ to my writing. Embarrassed, I brushed her compliment aside. But later I had to accept that what she said was partially true – at least in the context of my own life. I am now more dedicated to my writing than ever. So the saying goes: ‘If you want to be a writer, write.’ I never really understood that until this past year. Until then I had taken it very literally: ‘If I write, I might be able to become a writer,’ I thought.

It's in there, telling you something. Thanks to fujur for use of this image, Crying Heart, under Creative Commons.
It's in there, telling you something. Thanks to fujur for use of this image, Crying Heart, under Creative Commons.

Nobody becomes a writer without writing. But there’s an extra dimension to the call that I now understand. It’s about making writing a priority. Until a year ago I prioritised non-writing work over writing work (because I knew there was a buck in the former and this was unlikely in the latter). Verily my energies got sucked into the vortex that was ‘not writing’. The only aspect of my life not drained from this choice was my bank account. Professionally speaking, writing was my primary desire, but I put it into the appendices of my life.

Earning money is obviously a hurdle for many pursing writing as a priority. But that can be said of all the arts. History documents countless artisans and wordsmiths who have focused their efforts on their craft, but their income came from somewhere else. True, it is a privilege to be able to do this, and if you’re reading this with any interest, you’re most likely to be living in a first world economy. This means that you too may be able to follow your heart.

We all have to juggle the income situation. And this was certainly a factor in my procrastination. Eventually I realised that the one good thing about those years of toiling in an office was that it paid. I could now make good on that. I devised a hypothetical budget that enabled me to understand the consequences of not earning full-time. I knew what changes I had to make to allow writing as my number one professional priority and I set myself to it.

For me, the difference between just writing and prioritising writing is huge. I’ve given myself time to pursue more pitches. I’ve allowed myself time to study my craft. I’m now more able to chip away at my work. I have more time to research and write my stories. I read far more. I write far more. And in my writerly travels I’ve met lots of kindred spirits – people who also love reading and writing. They have made my life all the richer.

Of course I am not yet the writer that I’d like to be, but I am certainly trying, and trying feels good. As a septuagenarian friend of mine would say, ‘It feels good within yourself.’

The past week has reminded me how short life is. It goes by far too quickly. The older I get, the faster it goes. The older I get, the more I wish I’d had more belief in myself as a youngster and pursued what I’d always wanted: to tinker with words and ideas daily. I envy and admire those of you in your early twenties pursuing your writing careers. How much richer your lives will be as consequence. I do recognise that my years in an office helped fund my first year out of it. Still, I will always regret having dilly-dallied for too long. I may be ‘dedicated’ now, but I’m merely trying to catch up on the years already lost.

So I join in the chorus: if you want to write, write. If it’s really what you want to do, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

Future of Long Form will resume normal (ie, no sot philosophical) programming next week.